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The Travellers of War. Part 1. An Interview with a Crimean Refugee, Pavlo Belousov

Pavlo is a social activist and an entrepreneur from Crimea, who moved with his girlfriend to Lviv last spring to escape Russian aggression. We met at one of Lviv’s coffee places on an August evening, after the day’s heat had gone. Despite coming from the warm south, Pavlo is sensitive to hot temperatures. We talked about his work, new life in Lviv, and his solution to stop the war.


Are you planning to go back to Crimea one day?

No. Despite leaving my property, friends, relatives, and memories, I will definitely not come back.


How about any unfinished business?

I left a few unfinished projects in Crimea, which I will be closing down, since I cannot be there anymore. One of them is a popular web community portal for my hometown of Alushta. It’s a sort of web forum, or a collaborative blog, as I call it. It tells about various local events without any kind of censorship. Locals write what they feel strongly about. Many people get news from this website, including the town mayor.


For some time I didn’t check the website’s e-mail, but today I found there an invitation to the investigation committee of the Russian Federation. I have been asked to give a call to a senior investigator of some department, to discuss something. The invitation came to the website’s e-mail address. They probably would accuse me of extremism.


There are also a few projects focused on tourism, which are closing down too, due to the same reason. And there were some social initiatives, like a free legal advice service for citizens of Alushta, and a website Ukryama, designed to tackle the quality of the roads. The last one is a national project and it’s still being worked on today.


There are some Internet based projects, and social initiatives I am working on at the moment. I am not tied to a location, so I feel free.


What is your specialty or calling? And have you found what to do in Lviv?

At a university, I studied to be a journalist. But I left during the third year, as I realised that there was no point in continuing. So I have an unfinished higher education. Crimean higher education is quite “special”. No one is interested in knowledge, only in money.

In Lviv, I worked on the city council for almost half a year. It was a new experience for me that I wasn’t used to. Usually, I work by myself.


So, what do you plan to do next?

Now, I try to feel the essence of Lviv, to understand how the city works. To some extent I can see it already, but I need to understand the needs of the locals. If one decided to do something, he should make sure that it will be useful. Things work a bit differently in Crimea than here, so I don’t want to do something that nobody will need. Perhaps I will work on social initiatives and on entrepreneurial ideas. Perhaps, they will cross. For now I am watching.


Is there something special in Crimea that you miss, or feel a lack of here?

Actually, there were things that I felt a lack of in Crimea, and I found them in Lviv, and they compensate for lots of other things left in Crimea. I cannot say that something is missing. However, I can feel the change of climate and surroundings. I used to see mountains, and the sea. But there are many interesting places in Lviv that compensate. It’s the power of habit.


The historical centre in Lviv is beautiful. When I lived in Crimea, on cold winter evenings I wanted to get back home as early as possible, as it was nicer inside than outside – my city was neglected and dirty. It’s completely the opposite here; the city is very clean and the historical centre is very cool. There are lots of buildings dating back to the XV, XVI centuries. So I enjoy spending time among those buildings. Stryiskyi Park is very cool; it compensates for a lot. It was designed well, and has lots of beautiful trees.


What else do you like in Lviv?

Weather. I was very sensitive to the Crimean hot temperatures. So often, I went out only after 9PM to avoid the heat. Whereas here, whether it’s rain or clouds, it’s good for me. Also, I like the local people very much. In general, they are intelligent, open, and active. A great example was the unrest in Lviv (during Maidan protests, – editor), when the police station was taken over, and the 102 emergency service wasn’t working. Locals had organised street patrols. And there were many volunteers to join the bike patrol, and in general those wishing to safeguard their home city.


And have you noticed already something you don’t like in Lviv?

If I wanted to be really picky, I would say that there are too many cars in the downtown area, parked anywhere they like. Although, I cannot say that the situation is any better in other Ukrainian cities. But I wish the cars would not be allowed in the central city. In any case, I have no doubt that this will be sorted over time.


Also, I don’t like the monotonous apartments’ blocks (soviet era, – editor) outside the central area. I hope that soon the locals will start re-painting them in different colours. Because when you are around those buildings it’s difficult to say where you are – in Lviv, in Simferopol, in Vinnitsa, or in Kharkiv. All those sleeping districts are typical, so we should do something about them. The same situation is in other cities of course too.


In which part of the city do you live?

I live with my girlfriend in the central part of the city. It was our decision from the start, to be close to work. After work we used to go for a coffee, and around 9PM or 10PM we were going home.


How did your girlfriend feel about moving to Lviv? Did she support you in this?

Yes, we have lived together since 2009. She is Russian. First time we visited Lviv was around 2011 or 2010, and she fell in love with the city immediately. We already knew at that point, that if we ever were to move anywhere that it would be only to Lviv.


Was it difficult for you to switch to Ukrainian language?

No, not difficult. It’s just that sometimes some words I have to translate in my mind before speaking them, and sometimes I have to switch to Russian when I need to convey the exact meaning of what I want to say. Because sometimes small details can make a big difference. Also, I speak Russian at home, and with friends who also moved here. Otherwise at various places with locals I speak Ukrainian, maybe sometimes Russian. There is no problem with that. Often we hear that the Russian language is a painful issue for locals, but in practice I haven’t seen that.


So you didn’t meet any Banderas? (a term used to refer to Ukrainian partisans of World War II, and often used today to describe strong Ukrainian nationalists. Origin)

Only those who pose for tourist photos! Actually, since my childhood I have heard scary stories about Banderas, and that no one will sell you a bus ticket if you speak Russian, or no one will ever help you. So I really thought that only fascists live in Lviv, and I should not go there. But it happened so that I went one day, I think it was 2005 or 2006, almost 10 years ago. And I didn’t see anything scary. I even liked it.


I talk in Russian here all the time – no problem. At first I thought that maybe locals are tolerant to the tourists only in the downtown area, and that it would be different in the suburbs. But after we moved we started to go to the remote districts, and still we haven’t encountered any negativity when speaking Russian, or when people find out that we are from Crimea. Quite the opposite – now we get even more attention and support. Probably because everyone understands that people leave Crimea not because of the nice life. Yet, just 10 years ago I truly believed that it would be impossible to live here.


How do you spend your leisure time in the new city?

I read. More of the press and articles than fiction. Also I started a few areas to entertain myself. The first one is a blog that I started to write, titled “How a Crimean is adapting in Lviv”. Namely, it’s about stuff that locals know very well – which shop is better? How to find a bus stop? Which apps to use to make your life easier? I create small notes about what I learned, what is the structure behind it, and what it is for. This project will help me not to forget how I was adapting here. And this experience can be interesting for other settlers too, so I write this blog in Russian.


Another side project is monitoring the global and Ukrainian digital government services. For example, there is the governmental contact centre that few people know about, but which works pretty well. So I write about how to use it, how to register, and I post examples of applications. Also, I describe services that provide access to public information, and list social media accounts of governmental institutions. This information can help citizens to take an active part in state affairs, and to be aware of what is happening. This also helps to reduce the time in dealing with various tasks, and to react on what is being implemented in the government.


And how about sports?

For now I am using some applications on my smartphone that help me to maintain my fitness level. But I know that Lviv is a cyclists’ city, and there are some cool bike rides happening, so I also want to buy a bicycle.


And the last question is a tough one. How can we stop the war?

Yes, it’s a tough question. But I will answer from my own experience. I am a Crimean who lived on the peninsula for 20 years and didn’t go anywhere beyond it. When I now tell people about my views on the past, it’s hard to believe for them that it’s possible to change so much. Before, I used to watch Russian TV, I liked Putin, and my attitude towards Ukrainians was a bit disrespectful. Not because I was so bad, but because of my surroundings back then. When with my friends in Crimea we saw the tourists from the West of Ukraine; we disrespected them because they didn’t leave tips and brought food with them. But after I travelled around Ukraine, I realised that Crimeans actually should give tips to tourists instead, considering the level of service they provide in comparison to Lviv for example. But being in that informational field I simply couldn’t see the complete picture.


I don’t know the exact number, but around 80% of Crimeans have never left the peninsula even once. So in my opinion, it’s very important to invite people to visit elsewhere by any means. To deliver them by busses, airplanes, and ferries. So that they could see for themselves, and make up their own mind. If there is now support for separatism in the East, it’s only because people there don’t know what life is like in the West of the country. So it would help if there were cheap rail, bus, and rail connections available. I have a friend who came to Lviv for a cultural program sponsored by his university. He was shocked by what he saw, in a good sense. He even started talking Ukrainian. That’s why these kinds of programs are also very important. One has to see with his own eyes, and then there would not be any war. I am confident about this.


But don’t you think that we are a bit late now?

Yes, for sure. But I think that everything will be good. We just need to make conclusions, and forget all confrontations, whether they are language or ideology based. Because in reality, people in Lviv could learn a lot from people in Donetsk, and vice versa. We just need to make travelling really accessible.


A trip from Crimea to Lviv by rail, takes around 24 hours, with many stops. Not everyone wants to travel 1000 km in a whole day and night. That’s a lot. We need fast trains and cheap air connections. A ticket from Crimea to Lviv costs around 200 UAH. I have been to Lughansk more than once, and I have friends there. I know how they spend their leisure time. Once a week they go out and together they spend around 1000 UAH on alcohol and stuff. Same money they could spend on a trip to Lviv. So it’s definitely not a question of money. Perhaps promotion. Also, they aren’t used to travel, or they hesitate. Football games could be a good reason to travel, if it is organised with this in mind.


On the other hand, in mass media should be more educational programs. There are many interesting people in the East, who we need to know about, and same in the West. We should hear about how Lviv’s community is taking initiative and developing its city. And how the businessmen in the East are organising their business processes. They do it very well. While a random Lviv’s resident won’t do anything until he has his cup of coffee in the morning, an Easterner has a more strict and structured approach to work. We need to learn from each other, and mix things.


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